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Oxford Playhouse - Peter Pan

3rd December 2004 to 16th January 2005.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Flying high

Peter Pan, at The Oxford Playhouse, until Sunday,January 16

John Doyle and Sarah Travis’ theatrical revolution, creating brilliant smaller-scale musicals starring actor-musicians, has spread quite wondrously to the Oxford Playhouse from the Watermill.

With excellent judgement, theatre director Tish Francis has brought in the duo to collaborate on a new musical version of JM Barrie’s evergreen Peter Pan. Peter Pan puts the seal on a remarkable year at the Playhouse which featured their acclaimed Pinter plays, the revival of South African sensation Amajuba, and the innovative backstage hosting of Out of Joint’s groundbreaking Macbeth.

Doyle has stunningly re-imagined the Playhouse stage opening it up with a wide wooden floor around which are many delightful props designed for a magical effect by Liz Cooke. Trees with branches hung with golden fairy lights hide the band. At one side is a huge fireplace glowing red above which is a flexible plexiglass mirror behind which Captain Hook will emerge; opposite, above a gigantic set of draws is the window where Peter Pan will fly off with Wendy and her brothers.

The entire cast showcases its musical and acting talent. Justine Koos’ spiky-haired Peter leads the production personifying boyish “fun”. She is ably matched by Simon Walter’s truly evil Captain Hook. He is not joking when the Lost Boys have to walk the plank. The audience has a fine time booing this haughty pirate and enjoying a tit-for-tat repartee when Hook asks us for advice. As Wendy, Joanna Hickman enchants with her naïve smiles and sweet songs. Helen Anderson-Lee is physically beautiful as Wendy’s mother and musically engaging as a pianist-singer. When Wendy’s family, servant and dog merge dreamlike into their fantasy characters it is first-rate theatre, and also psychologically revealing.

Doyle and Travis’ musical numbers will give Mary Poppins a run for its money in terms of catchiness. Alongside the professionals, the children (tonight the Red Team) play musical instruments well and act. We get to sing and clap our hands joyously. Don’t regret missing this one.



Walking into the theatre, the magic was already alive in a dreamy eeriness as characters sat totally involved in their own tasks or looking out spookily into the audience.

I was fascinated by the set. The dimensions and perspectives were unreal and imaginative. Coat hangers, houses and flamingos hanging from the ceiling, a chest of drawers and a fireplace bigger than any I have ever seen.

As the lights in the auditorium went down (with the exception of the light-up swords held by youngsters in the audience), ticking could be heard on stage from a percussion instrument played by Mrs Darling (Helen Anderson-Lee).

My first impressions of Nanna (Jon Trenchard who also played Smee) were that she was very strange. The putting on and removing of her head was even odder - but as the panto moved on, the idea grew on me.

The art of distraction is cleverly used. Lisa (Michelle Long) made a transition into Tiger Lily in full view whilst the Darlings ‘learnt to fly' in a way which remained completely mysterious to me!

One of the most exciting and original features of this production was the music. We were not presented with a pit orchestra as I had expected, as each character had an instrument (or several) which they used throughout for musical numbers and sound effects. I spotted at least 19 different instruments being used by the cast members. Peter Pan (the fantastic Justine Koos) himself, when he first appeared at the window, was armed with a cello!

Instruments also doubled up as weapons for the pirates (who included Simon Tuck, Emma Correlle, Adam Stone and Jez Unwin), with trumpet used as a gun, and flute and piccolo as swords.

Captain Hook (Simon Walter, who also played Mr Darling) was fantastic. Not only battling with the Lost Boys (Nibs-Joe Ridley, Slightly - Lizzie Yaxley, Curly - Rory Gilchrist, Tootles - Gregory Vickers and The Twins - Eleanor Vickers and Caitlin Barclay) and the Darlings (Wendy - Joanna Hickman, John - Richard Henley and Michael - James Bailey), but against the audience's confusing calls and yells, saying he should kill Peter Pan and the Lost Boys and that the crocodile was still there, even though he wasn't. Nevertheless, Captain Hook fought on, and added a few extra ad-lib yells back!

There were a few shocked audience members when the Lost Boys sang ‘we don't give a toss', to which two ladies sat behind me whispered to each other ‘are they allowed to say that?', needless to say they seemed to really enjoy the show laughing and joining in throughout, including the audience participation ‘Clappy Song' which went down a treat with everyone (well done Emily and Paul!).

Needless to say (and I hope I can say this without ruining the show for you all), the villains were not victorious and the innocent and brave did escape unharmed!!

The entire cast give as much to this production as they possibly could give. This really is a great show for the whole family and a fantastic Christmas treat. Go see!


From the Daily Telegraph.

This magical show refuses to grow old

They breed their children tough in Oxford. The matinee performance of Peter Pan was packed with apparently sweet and well-mannered primary schoolchildren, but when the going got rough they revealed the morals of the Marquis de Sade.

"Shall I shoot the boy?" Captain Hook leeringly asked the juvenile audience. "Yeah, shoot him!" screamed back my neighbours. And when Tinkerbell was in mortal peril, and we were asked to clap our hands if we believed in fairies, they screamed back that actually, no, all things considered, they didn't believe in fairies AT ALL. This of course was the response from the boys.

The girls, made of more tender stuff, mercifully ensured the show didn't turn into a bloodbath. But what struck me most about John Doyle's production was that except when encouraged to join in, almost all the children were clearly transported by it. At key moments you could hear a pin drop which, believe me, is exceptionally rare at schools' matinees.

Doyle, best known for his groundbreaking musicals using actor-musicians (his brilliant Sweeney Todd is currently playing at the New Ambassadors), captures not only the wonder but the strangeness of Peter Pan in his own adaptation of J M Barrie. The whole show has a haunting, dreamlike atmosphere, never entirely leaving the nursery, and with the strong suggestion that the adventures in Neverland are an imaginative response to the Darling family's everyday lives. One of the children has just seen a crocodile in a Punch and Judy show at Kensington Gardens, for instance. The Wendy House turns out to be a clotheshorse drying sheets and towels, while the rowing boat on the lagoon is the family bath.

The story seems to be emerging from the children's own heads in those magical moments balanced between sleep and waking. Tiger Lily is the family maid, Nana the dog (shame she's got a horrid plastic head) becomes Smee and naturally the children's unreliable father becomes Captain Hook.

Sarah Travis provides music which ranges from the haunting to the riotous, and as always in Doyle's shows the actors double as the band. It's not every day that you see Captain Hook playing the accordion, or Nana blowing a penny whistle, and there are some smashing songs. The imaginative design, by Liz Cooke, memorably combines the humdrum and the magical.

It doesn't all work. The narrative sometimes seems to drift, the mermaids have gone awol, and I could have done with far more exciting fight sequences. The flying is a bit clumsy too, with too many visible wires, and what on earth has happened to Tinkerbell's light? Having Mrs Darling (a rather stiff Helen Anderson-Lee) ringing a little handbell to signal the fairy's presence is nothing like as magical.

Justine Koos, however, is a tough, touslehaired Peter, Joanna Hickman a sweet Wendy, and Simon Walter doubles splendidly as Mr Darling and Captain Hook, a ginger, furtive, ferrety cove with a glassy smile who turns into a nightmare figure in his children's dreams. The moment when Hook tenderly asks his victims whether they would like to stroke his hair before he dispatches them to the deep seems to encapsulate everything that is strange and creepy in Barrie's beloved but disconcerting masterpiece.



It falls to few writers to create names for their imaginary people which take on permanent life. Salute, then, to J. M. Barrie who managed it one and a half times in his most famous work: half marks for adding 'Pan' to Peter, still the standard term for a free spirit/perpetual adolescent, and full marks for inventing 'Wendy' his companion/surrogate mother/sensible girl.

Peter, Wendy and all the gang from Kensington Gardens and Neverland (address: second on the right, straight on till morning) are in residence at the Playhouse, in this the centenary year of the play's first production, until January 16, usually offering two very vigorous shows a day.

Award-winning writer and director John Doyle is well-known to local audiences for his splendid work at the Watermill; he has assembled a talented cast of actor-musicians who toot, bang, scrape and blow, not to mention sing (some near-professionally), dance and fly.

Trumpet, accordion, piano, cello (favoured by both Peter and Wendy) recorders even for the smallest of the Lost Boys ensure full value will be given to the music of Sarah Travis -- also a veteran from the Watermill and Chipping Norton -- who provides lyrical, bluesy and action tunes as required. The opening scene in the Darlings' nursery has genuine period magic in Liz Cooke's set, with the children's beds, a fabulous grey silk gown for Mrs Darling (Helen Anderson-Lee, who later tinkles an expressive bell for Tinkerbell), and a very convincing Nana the doggy-nurse from Jon Trenchard (later an energetic Smee). The window stands open and as the snowflakes fall Peter flies in; there's no mention in Justine Koos's CV of circus training but she turns a mean somersault in mid-air as well as conveying the mingled boyish arrogance and loneliness at Peter's heart.

We still have new people to meet -- Tiger Lily (Michelle Long, fetching in squaw's headdress and dashing away on the bongos), pirates ho-hoing about their jolly life, and of course, making his entrance swinging down a cable, fearsome Captain Hook (Simon Walter, with a huge hook, a sneer and a guffaw to match). Hear that 'tick-tock'? We in the audience provide that, for the crocodile.

Here Doyle moves the show nearer pantomime boos, hisses, calls and songs, a faintly uneasy mixture alongside battles, plank-walking and, of course, the traditional appeal to save Tinkerbell's life -- we managed it, you'll be glad to know. There are some lovely stage groupings as the Lost Boys in their pyjamas and nightcaps cluster for their betime story. The smallest, Tootles, has quite a few lines and delivers them like a pro. They follow Wendy home, and are led off to a real tea -- no make-believe here, says Mr. Darling. No? The whole show is make-believe, and delightful.